Sunday, April 17, 2011

Grad Women @ MIT: Reflections from the First Full Year

My main non-research interest at MIT has been Graduate Women at MIT, which I helped found in fall 2009. Last year I was involved with establishing GWAMIT with the MIT administration and leading the Spring Kick-off, our first week of programming demonstrating the tone and content we envisioned for future events. My main GWAMIT projects this year have been co-chairing the planning committee for the inaugural Spring Empowerment Conference, developing the organization structure, and growing the GWAMIT web presence (on the website, blog, Facebook, and Twitter).

GWAMIT has had amazing growth this last year and a half: we went from having a leadership structure of three people (Kay Furman, Megan Brewster, and me) to a leadership structure that includes an Executive Board, a General Board of over 30 departmental representatives, and active planning committees for each of the flagship events (the mentoring program, leadership conference, and empowerment conference)--you may read some of our personal mission statements here. We have now become a centralized point of contact for MIT's graduate women, with over 650 members on our weekly digest, over 50 mentoring groups in the mentoring program, and 250 unique attendees at each of the conferences, which have had five events each. The GWAMIT community includes not just graduate women but also undergrads, postdocs, alumni, faculty, and staff--some of whom are men and some of whom are affiliated with other area universities. In this first full year of programming, we have raised over $20K from generous MIT and external sources.

I have compiled the following advice for people starting a student organization or similar kind of group.

Be concrete. In the beginning, we had to justify why we wanted to start GWAMIT, how GWAMIT planned to be different from existing campus resources and departmental women's groups, and how we were going to achieve these goals. To answer these questions we did detailed research on statistics about women at MIT, existing resources, and potential sources of funding. We described our plans in terms of concrete details, complete with timelines and budgets. Having concrete data helped address most questions.

Dream big, but have realistic plans.
From the beginning, we had the ambitious goal of launching all three flagship programs. We understood, however, that with limited funding and human resources we would have to keep the programs at a manageable scale. Thanks to Kay's realism, our initial plans for the programs required a minimal budget and were only intended to serve a group size that could be handled even if we did not recruit more members immediately. Knowing our vision allowed us to scale up each of the program when the funding and enthusiasm poured in, but having the bare-bones backup plan allowed us to launch in the first place.

Execute as soon as possible.
Before we had funding or members during our first full semester of operation, I pushed to have the Spring Kick-off. We bootstrapped our funding by laying out possible sources of funding and approached each potential funder with our funding plan and how they would fit in. We recruited our initial planning committee of members who were passionate about helping out and believed in the cause. The Spring Kick-off was a success, with five catered events, including a keynote on implicit bias and a panel on collaboration from the perspectives of academic women. Having the kick-off was beneficial because 1) it showed our funders and constituents we were serious, 2) it demonstrated to everyone what GWAMIT's niche would be at MIT, and 3) it spread the word about the organization and got people onto our mailing lists. The momentum from the Spring Kick-off helped us recruit members for flagship planning and helped us establish the credibility to get additional funding. Execution is the best way to be organized and to be concrete.

Leverage collaborations. When it was just Kay, Megan, and me, we leveraged each others' strengths and interests and also the strengths and interests of our collaborators. Each of us had different areas we were more interested in pursuing (mentoring, empowerment, establishing internal MIT relations, establishing external relations, etc.) and we worked together to allow each of us to pursue our interests while making sure the big picture still made sense. We could have a distributed execution model because we trusted each other to make the right decisions without having all three of us present at all meetings or for all small decisions. Leveraging our collaborations outside GWAMIT was also incredibly helpful: for example, for the Spring Kick-off we had events with external collaborators such as keynote speaker Freada Klein, workplace diversity expert, and internal collaborators such as MIT Ombuds, who helped us lead a workshop on navigating difficult situations. We have, individually and as a group, learned the advantage of being organized and communicating to collaborators how they can help us.

people to pursue their passions. GWAMIT has only been able to execute programming at such a large scale because so many members people who propose and execute ideas. The planning committees, and also the executive board, operates in a democratic way. The committee structure is in place only to make sure the planning is on task: event leads who propose an idea or take on someone else's idea is responsible for developing event content. This has led to innovative content like the online personal branding workshop (Empowerment Conference '11) and innovative event structures like the keynote that was half Q&A (Leadership Conference '10). Event leads have done fantastic jobs in executing events, in large part because, as one former event lead puts it, they are driven to contribute not for the credit but out of personal interest.

Actively manage your image. There are two ways we have been managing our image: through our online presence and through our programming.

We had a GWAMIT website and logo before we had members. On our website we had our mission, proposed events, a list of MIT and Boston area resources we had compiled, and an events calendar. Having a professional online image was something tangible that could demonstrate to our funders, supporters, and future members that we we meant business--and also what that business was. Managing our online image gave us agency in shaping people's views of us: when deciding what to think of GWAMIT, they could get the information directly from us and how we present ourselves.

GWAMIT's brand also includes our event content and execution. We choose event content that is innovative, provocative, and non-overlapping with existing resources. We also pay attention to advertising, putting effort into designing and disseminating our posters (see the Empowerment Conference '11 keynote poster here). At the events, we greet attendees, set the mood by playing music, and have high-quality catering at events we choose to cater. We also bring the GWAMIT banner and also tablecloths and flowers when relevant. People have come to associate GWAMIT with not just a set of ideas, but also a style. This style gives people a good idea of to expect with us and also, we hope, inspires people to join us.


Of course, the primary legacy of any group depends on its sustainability. Looking forward, it will be important to establish sustainable organization and funding structures and ways of passing on experience from GWAMIT leaders. I also have post on the GWAMIT blog about specific areas of interest for next year.

I am lucky to be working with such brilliant, driven, and effective colleagues in such a supportive environment, within GWAMIT and at MIT. I am excited for what is to come.

Interested in getting involved with GWAMIT? Feel free to e-mail me (jeanyang [at] mit).


neha said...

thanks for taking the time to write this up jean, it's really interesting!

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